Despicable Me

Pixar it ain't, but cute enough.

Keen to make their mark in the animated arena, Universal’s very first CGI feature, Despicable Me, depicts a studio desperately trying to measure up to the brilliance of Pixar. For all of the good done here, after the three consecutive hits that have taken Pixar’s work to a visceral new level (WALL-E, Up and Toy Story 3), can it really be done? On this basis, probably not, but Despicable Me is a fun enough, if derivative and emotionally shallow attempt at aping the masters of the game.

Gru (Steve Carell) is a supervillain with dreams of becoming the most infamous baddie of them all. When a young, pompous rival supervillain named Vector (Jason Segel) steals the Great Pyramid of Giza, Gru feels that he must prove himself superior, and plots to steal the Moon. In order to do so, he must steal Vector’s shrink way, and so adopts a trio of orphaned girls – who Vector allows into his lair due to the delicious cookies they sell – in order to get to it. However, the girls, ecstatic at being adopted, love Gru unquestionably, and their chirpy personalities slowly break Gru’s tough exterior down.

More successful as a comedy than a touching emotional portrait (it is more sweet than moving), Despicable Me wrings some modest laughs out of its protagonist’s pathetically meek villainy, popping kid’s balloons, freezing coffee shop patrons and jumping the queue, and driving a hulking, environmentally careless mammoth of a car. His attempts to commit real crimes, meanwhile, are mostly nixed; his best efforts to date involve stealing the Times Square jumbotron, and though he has convinced his absent-minded yellow minions of his antagonistic stature, few others are sold, least of all Gru’s ever-disappointed mother (Julie Andrews), who constantly chops him down to size.

The film’s chief flaw is that the set-up is just unnecessarily long in the tooth; Gru and his adoptee’s scenes run independently for a good half hour, and as such once Gru meets them, there is not a whole lot of time for character development, as soon enough Vector shows up and throws a spanner in the works. Again, the film is simply so much more efficient as a mild comedy (with plenty of pantomime-inspired slapstick) rather than an emotional story about a very unconventional family; the gags balance cuteness well with some wry wit, and there are just about enough adult allusions to keep all ages interested (parents will doubtless find parallels with Gru’s plight). The basic narrative, though, is clearly derivative of lesser live-action films like Mr. Nanny and The Pacifier, though Universal are smart enough to know that the sort of zaniness required by a film like that rarely (if ever) works outside the animation field.

The film’s most challenging aspect is in depicting Gru’s turn towards the good without sacrificing narrative integrity; thankfully the film does not lose its edge, and some hilarious scenes depict Gru’s continuing struggle to abandon the kids once he realises how much of an effort it is to, you know, raise them. Sympathy is cleverly generated by having Gru experience the same pangs as any parent, nagged by their kids for “just another go”, and when Gru makes various misguided efforts to cheer his kids up, it is sweet in Gru’s own demented way. Gru’s haphazard effort at trying to juggle his work and children (as a single parent, more importantly) makes for a smart metaphor. How we inevitably see the defences wearing out – as the kids’ childish destructiveness meshes with Gru’s lost, repressed childhood – is well-executed even if the central relationship is not imbued with enough emotion.

I would very willingly have sat through an entire film about the father/daughter(s) relationship without the need for the inevitable antagonist to show up and threaten things; it steals important time away from character development in favour of a flashy set piece that, while visually popping, feels unnecessary (or necessary only to justify the 3D). Resultingly, the emotional arc runs too quickly, coming off as shallow, just before the film ends with the by-now customary musical dance number. Long story short; Universal, despite their best efforts, are not Pixar, but on the modest merits of this film, they owe it to themselves to take another crack at it.


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